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Editorial: A Modest Proposal: New Debate Hosts

Oct 5, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Katie Couric and Charles Gibson have both shown that good old broadcast network television news still has some kick left in it. They asked Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin fair, non-gotcha questions that left her stumped. Looking forward to the remaining presidential debates, however, we wonder whether the old model of using TV news eminences to moderate still makes sense.
Jim Lehrer, the PBS stalwart and TV journalism hero, refereed the first presidential debate between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. The debate seemed like an oddly antiquarian set-piece battle, and even the redoubtable Mr. Lehrer was unable to coax a truly revealing moment out of the candidates.
The straight news approach didn’t produce many straight answers.
How could we shake up the debates to shock the candidates off of their talking points? How could we inject the debates with the same sharp, cynical sensibility that has made smart viewers on the left and right love “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report”?
Herewith a modest proposal: What about inviting Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to moderate the remaining debates? Might not the court jesters do better than the barristers in this case? Might not the comics’ rhetorical bag of tricks (calling out self-contradictory blather, carrying out half-baked ideas to their illogical conclusions) get the candidates to reveal more of themselves?
It’s delicious to mine the possibilities, looking back at the last debate and imagining the questions:
“Sen. McCain, you suspended your campaign this week and said you wouldn’t appear at this debate unless Congress passed a financial rescue bill. Congratulations on solving the crisis. Is this the kind of steady hand on the tiller you’ll employ as president?”
“Sen. Obama, in the primaries, when you mocked your opponent Hillary Clinton’s position on guns by calling her ‘Annie Oakley,’ is that the different kind of politics you’re promising to bring to Washington?”
“Sen. McCain, you chose your running mate ‘cause she’s kinda hot, right?”
“Sen. Obama, as someone who is vastly better-looking than John McCain, do you feel guilty for making him look old and feeble in your TV ads?”
The “Daily Show” and “Colbert” writers, of course, could do far better. Some may think this is an absurd idea, and that surely we jest. But is it any less absurd than saying the moderator of the VP debate didn’t have at least the appearance of a conflict of interest with her upcoming book “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama”?

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